Monday 14 April 2008

How can unions respond to globalisation?

I've been writing a review of "Labour and the Challenges of Globalization (What prospects for transnational solidarity?)" for the Socialist Review magazine. Though it's not a great book in a number of ways, it does air a number of important issues for trade unionists. I didn't feel my 400 word review could do it justice, so I thought I would write something more detailed (about the issues raised rather than the book) here.

This is intended to make you think (as the book made me think), not to be a thought-through plan for the future of UNITE or any other union.

The need to respond to globalisation is widely appreciated by trade unionists. Just think about the amount of discussion about migrant labour, offshoring of manufacturing and services, the impact of the EU or the challenges of negotiating locally with Trans-National Corporations (TNCs).

What's often less clear is what people actually mean by "globalisation" and how we should respond. Are international union mergers the key? Should our campaigning focus on national governments, the EU, international bodies such as the WTO, IMF or World Bank, or on TNCs themselves?

At the heart of "globalisation" is the attempt, led by the US government, to impose a neo-liberal economic model on the whole world. This means seeing the "free" market as the answer to all questions and promoting "deregulation", including of labour markets. This is an agenda that involves a sharp reduction in democracy (and "interference" in the free market by the democratic process is frowned upon) and a big shift in power to those who are already rich and powerful.

Globalisation is often used as an excuse for neo-liberal policies at home. Governments claim to be helpless in the face of it. Just remember Tony Blair's visit (soon after his election as PM) to the Fujitsu plant in Newton Aycliffe when it was closing and his claims he couldn't do anything about it. Current examples include Rolls Royce in Merseyside.

In countries like the UK, we tend to focus on the direct impacts of the neo-liberal agenda, such as privatisation, refusal of government to protect jobs, cuts in enforcement of safety and other labour standards etc. But it's worth taking a step back to think about what globalisation means globally.

Just as in the cold war people used "east" and "west" as political terms as much as geographical ones (Japan was in the west and Cuba in the east!), today people who write about globalisation use "north" to mean the rich developed countries and "south" to mean the rest.

Modern capitalist agriculture employs a few tens of millions, while 3 billion peasants still make up about half the world’s population. A peasant’s productivity is a fraction of one percent of that of a “modern” farm-worker. The neo-liberal drive to force poor countries to open their markets to “free” competition in food production means depriving these peasants of their livelihoods, driving them into the cities.

Economic growth in some of the global south’s mega-cities (even in China and India) is insufficient to absorb the influx of rural migrants into full employment. The deregulation of labour markets and absence or destruction of welfare states helps the bosses exploit high unemployment through a rapid expansion in “precarious” or “informal” employment such as temporary, illegal, self-employed or part-time work without employment rights. Others are forced to migrate to richer countries to make a living, often outside “formal” employment there. In the south, “permanent” jobs are a minority, while richer countries are seeing trends in the same direction.

A key function of collective union organisation is to prevent undercutting pay and conditions by workers competing for jobs. Unions dealing nationally with trans-national corporations encouraging workers to compete in the “race to the bottom” are struggling to achieve this. International coordination of bargaining and solidarity has delivered some results, but is underdeveloped. It's not credible to fight for the same pay rate globally, and with large variations in inflation and other factors, how can you even coordinate claims? One system tried was to base claims in different countries on the same formula (e.g. inflation + productivity increase). Or why not coordinate claims with the most profitable plants going first to establish a benchmark?

Global union membership (as in the UK) is now concentrated in the public sector and among regular employees of larger companies – a shrinking proportion of the global working class. Representing only a relatively secure, privileged layer would reduce unions’ legitimacy to speak for the whole working class, reducing political influence.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with unions mainly representing the "formal" workforce in the rich countries working more closely together to have more leverage with TNCs. This is the logic behind the links UNITE is making with the USW in North America and various other unions. But there's a real danger unless our strategy for dealing with globalisation also allows us to break out of that niche. How much bargaining power will unions have with employers if they are unionised islands in a sea of non-unionised workers?

There can be real challenges in organising both "formal" and "informal" workers, as short-term interests can clash. It's not easy to get permanent and temporary workers to make compromises to support each other even in the same workplace. Trying to get workers in different countries to do so is even more challenging. Employers are not shy about trying to play us off against each other and unions are only ever successful in avoiding this when we have a vision of winning for all of us rather than bargaining about the distribution of pain.

If unions want to represent the whole working class in the future, we have to shift our priorities, actions and language to speak for the working class as a whole now (formal and informal workers, the unemployed, migrants, the young, the old and the sick alike) - otherwise how we will get there? And how do we take our existing membership with us through such a change?

The fact that we have some protection in the EU over discrimination against part-time workers is important. Strategically, we should be putting far more emphasis on securing similar protection for agency and temporary workers and for migrant workers.

If you are female or in an ethnic minority you are far more likely to be working in "informal" work, so any strategy to organise informal workers has to have a serious fight for equality and against discrimination at the heart of it.

Some unions have found that "workplace by workplace" organising just doesn't work against huge anti-union TNCs, so a far more strategic approach is required to crack them.

Where unions ideologically accept the logic of neoliberalism and the "free" market, they are then tied in to the logic of "national competitiveness". Instead of helping their members fighting for what they need, they are limited to showing companies and government the benefits of unions through conflict resolution, promoting skills and investment or boosting the brand with "corporate responsibility". This is all about the "supply side" - as if unemployment is caused by the failures of workers to be competitive enough, rather than the decisions of employers to boost profits by sacking us or to pay us so little that we can't buy enough to keep the economy afloat.

One model of unions suggests they adopt one or more of the following roles:

  1. Guild (helping an occupational elite)
  2. Friendly society (helping indvidualised workers)
  3. Company union (a productivity deal with a particular employer)
  4. Social partner (a political deal with the state)
  5. Social movement
At national level, many unions in the global north have placed a heavy emphasis on being social partners with centre-left national governments. To a certain extent this approach has been replicated at the EU level. Is this viable in a neoliberal world where governments are deregulating, opposed to intervention and passing power out of the democratic sphere? How can a union fighting neoliberalism and its consequences be a "social partner" of institutions which are promoting it?

Many unions are trying to reach global framework agreements with TNCs, to help organise in countries with lower labour standards. Is there a risk that if this is successful, and rights in the global south come down through TNCs rather than being secured by campaigning and legal changes in those countries that it could leave the bulk of the working class excluded from rights?

Many of the aspects of neo-liberalism that unions are fighting are also opposed by many other people and groups. In many cases social movements have better roots, access and credibility with workers outside the "core" workforce than unions themselves. Many unions are trying forming alliances with social movements on particular issues, from privatisation to poverty pay. This is unfamiliar territory for many unions, which aren't used to the compromises necessary to keep such alliances together, but the potential benefits in terms of activists, energy, ideas, legitimacy, recruits, profile (and results) are obvious. This process could create divisions within unions themselves.

European Works Councils (EWCs) have been useful for building international networks of reps within particular companies, but in general the unions haven't done much with them.

If the value-chain in production has changed from being largely within large integrated companies to involving large numbers of suppliers and sub-contractors, could links between union activists up and down the production chain become as useful in campaigns as the traditional ones in a locality or between competitors in the same industry?

A book I would heartily recommend which deals in an utterly different (far more readable) way with the development of the global working class is Paul Mason's "Live Working or Die Fighting". This takes accounts of (generally little known) struggles around the world today and places them alongside struggles from the birth of the labour movement and the industrial revolution. It's a powerful way of seeing the parallels and differences, and brings home that the patterns of employment and struggle that we've grown up with aren't historically typical at all.


Anonymous said...

Environmental sustainaibility and global partnership are the 2 issues..which are seriously worring the globe.
The developing nations and its population is far behind in realizing these facts.
The united nations along the common masses is organizing an event in the asian region this time..!

The union can participate in this event with complete autonomy..!
some highlights are:
1. End Hunger
2. Universal Education
3. Gender Equity
4. Child Health
5. Maternal Health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS
7. Environmental Sustainability
8. Global Partnership

Anonymous said...

I don't think you really review the book here. The main thing that Bieler does is demonstrate how unions are engaging in transnational actions and solidarities in the face of transnational captial. Whether the unions are able to offer resistance and not become party to merely legitimising further neoliberalism through 'social partnership' or “progressive competitiveness”.’ is the key question. As Gramsci said '‘the trade union is nothing other than a commercial company, of a purely capitalistic type, which aims to secure . . . the maximum price for the commodity labour, and to establish a monopoly over this commodity
in the national and international fields.’ Just a thought?